Having done Brazil’s planes and automobiles, Phil and I are intrigued to give the trains a go.
Squinting in the harsh 6am morning light at Anjo da Guarda station, we hand over £10 each for a ticket entitling us to a 10-hour jaunt from São Luís to the inland, back-of-beyond town of Açailândia.
There are two carriage choices: Economy or Executive. As far as we can tell the only difference is that one is air conditioned, so we go for the cheap option, hoping it will “add to the experience” rather than make us rue the day we ever stepped on board.
Phil sits down in the crowded waiting area with our bulging bags as I pop over to the station kiosk to grab some breakfast.
Ordering food or drink in Brazil can be a bit of a game. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the bartender/waitress/assistant will only serve whoever is shouting their order loudest, rather than s/he who has been waiting longest.
“Do you have coffee without sugar?” I venture when I finally catch her perfectly made-up eye.
“No,” she smiles sweetly, but before I can change my order she is off again, doling out beef pasties to the three sweaty pot-bellied gents who have just muscled their way in opposite.
Ten minutes later she is back. “Is it possible to make up some coffee without sugar?” I ask.
This has become my routine request the further up north we have come. I’m not sure why, but in this area of Brazil the equivalent of half a bag of the white stuff is automatically shovelled in to the hot drink, pre-prepared in a large flask.
To this, the punters usually then add one or two (or in one case I saw, 17) drops of liquid sweetener. Business for the dentists here must be booming.
The waitress furrows her brow and looks at me quizzically, then smiles and says, “Okay, but it could take a while.”
Half an hour later and a minute before our train is due to leave, I gratefully get my coffee and the caffeine kick I need to wake up.
We heave our backpacks onto a carriage about halfway down the track and find a surprisingly spacious pair of seats. It’s fairly stuffy, but at least the windows are all pulled down.
One of Brazil’s few railways, the Carajás line was originally built to transport raw materials and employees from the inland mines to the port at São Luís and now also provides an important passenger link between the states of Pará and Maranhão.
The company that operates the line, Vale do Rio Doce, is the world’s biggest exporter of iron ore and has seen its fair share of controversy.
The railway’s 892 kilometres of tracks were laid in part through indigenous land and trains have sometimes been blockaded.
In February this year, it was reported that several Vale employees were temporarily taken hostage by Guajajara native indians protesting to the government about education and health issues.
The company insists it continues to abide by the terms of an agreement drawn up with FUNAI, the national body that represents indigenous communities, and presents itself as a socially responsible, sustainable organisation.
The train helps fund the Vale Alfabetizar project, which assists thousands of people aged 15 upwards in learning to read and write every year. Its on-board televisions roll announcements reminding passengers to use the on-board recycling bins – the first we have seen since Rio – and Vale works with environmental agency ICMBio to monitor the fragile surrounding ecosystem.
The scenery sweeping past our window is beautiful, with vast green hills stretching for miles on end, palm trees and winding blue rivers into which young children jump from wooden jetties.
I feel guilty that Phil can’t enjoy it – having suddenly come down with a high fever and nausea, he spends most of the trip in the toilet.
The engine slows to a halt at our first stop and women and children carrying tubs of drinks on their heads and coolboxes stacked with bowls of rice, beans, meat and manioc flour approach the windows, out of which dozens of passengers lean and shout down their orders.
With a glaring example of what can happen if you eat something dodgy sat hunched over, groaning, to my left, I decide to seek out the on-board cafeteria. I squeeze my way through the gaggle of people of all ages laden with suitcases and boxes trying to find a seat.
In the clean, bright and beautifully cool café I am surprised to see my waitress friend smiling back from behind the counter.
Luckily there’s no queue this time.
“This is the girl I told you about – the one who doesn’t have sugar in her coffee!” she says to her hair-netted co-worker.
The other woman turns to me, eyes as wide as plates: “What? But then it’s bitter!”
“Yes, but I’m sweet enough already,” I reply with a grin.
Several hours and iPod albums later, the train’s wheels grind to a stop at the remote station of Açailândia.
Instead of changing to a bus to go onwards to a national park, a by now very white-faced Phil and I head off to find a taxi driver to take us to the nearest hostel.
Eventually we bump into one, in the form of a friendly young lad who offers to drive us into town in his old banger for BR$15.
Through the dirty window I watch as the metal behemoth slowly creaks off into the distance – a weighty reminder of the ongoing struggle between development and conservation in this beautiful country.